Altered States of Consciousness, Part 2: God Gave Ecstasy

15 February 2009

He did, you know.

The squinty-eyed fellow from the Living Way Christian Discernment Ministry* isn’t having any of this.

“No, no, you don’t understand,” he says.  “When you’re in an ecstatic state, you can’t think clearly.  Your defenses are down, you can’t think rationally, and that leaves you open to whatever influences may wander by.  It’s dangerous.”

“How about mid-orgasm?”  I ask him.  “I’d have to say, I’m not at the height of my reasoning powers just then.  Does that make it dangerous, something I should avoid at all costs?”

He looks at me funny, his face reddening.  I think he’s embarrassed that I said the word “orgasm” out loud in the middle of a Christian conversation.

But think about it.

I mean, do we really think that God looks down at a husband and wife and says, “You know Gabriel, if I’d thought it out a little more carefully, I would have done it differently.  Who knew they’d have so much fun with the plumbing?  They’re getting so excited that they’re not thinking about doctrine at all.”

But no.  God knew what He was doing, and every gift of God is good:

Go, eat your bread with joy,
And drink your wine with a merry heart;
For God has already accepted your works.
Let your garments always be white,
And let your head lack no oil.

Live joyfully with the wife whom you love all the days of your vaporous life which He has given you under the sun, all your days of vapor; for that is your portion in life; and in the labor which you perform under the sun.

But it gets better.  Read the Song of Solomon.  Then read the Ecclesiastes quote above, again.  Then read 1 Corinthians 7:3-5:

Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man possess his own wife, and let each woman possess her own husband.  The husband must give his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband.  The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does, and likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.  Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

So taken in its proper biblical context, the command is for husband and wife to practice the Song of Solomon as often as at least one of them desires; in fact Paul specifically warns about the dangers of abstinence.

Now, Song of Solomon gives us a view of lovemaking as a mutually delightful feast for the senses.  And this necessarily involves a state of consciousness rather different from everyday waking awareness — that is to say, an altered state of consciousness.

Married people have no choice but to enter regularly into this altered state of consciousness.  It is a sin not to.


It gets even better: God requires a husband to be drunk on his wife’s charms all the time.  (Here, not being a wife, I’m going to speak to husbands.  There’s an analogue for wives, but I’m not the person to discuss it.)

Solomon gives some very specific instructions to his sons on attitudes toward their wives:

Let your fountain be blessed,
And rejoice with the wife of your youth.
As a loving deer and a graceful doe,
Let her breasts sate you at all times,
And always be drunk on her loving.

Yeah, I know, old King James says “satisfy” and “enraptured” instead of “sate” and “drunk” — I altered the translation for a reason.  The first word means to be drenched, satiated, well-drunk, with connotations of flooding or drunkenness, depending on the context.  The second word means to wander, stray, or weave about, and by metonymy, to be drunk.  Add it all up, and a husband is to be absolutely besotted with his wife, out of his head, all objectivity completely gone.  She is the only woman in the world.  He may know, intellectually, that there are other women in the world who are sexually attractive, but he can’t quite get over his wife enough to see any other woman that way.

You’ll note that the commands here are not of the grim, moralizing sort: “Young man, the woman you marry is going to get old, and she won’t be so attractive, and you’re going to want to stray, but don’t you dare.  Grit your teeth and bear it, and God will make it worth your while in heaven.”  That’s not at all what Solomon says.  Solomon says, “Son, your job is to be absolutely lost in your wife’s physical charms.”  At risk of belaboring the point, he is not just talking about her great personality.**  

It’s a truism in Christian circles that it’s not a sin to be tempted, but only to yield to it.  This is one case where that’s not really true.  A husband who is seriously tempted to stray (including mentally, in the way Jesus talks about) has already violated this command; if he’s thinking about some other woman’s body, he’s not sufficiently drunk on his wife.  By the same token, a Christian husband who thinks of himself as  “breast man” or a “thigh man” is a contradiction in terms; a Christian husband must be drunk on his wife’s breasts, not breasts generally.  The inner workings of this are another discussion; for now, suffice it to say that it’s a very enjoyable and God-honoring form of meditation.

And it is to be cultivated, not just some of the time, but constantly — note the word “always.”  This is not just when she’s present and in the midst of seducing him, but when he’s at work, when she’s eight months pregnant, when they’ve just had a fight — all the time.  Obviously, this is a profoundly altered state of consciousness.  In fact, the Bible even uses the language of drunkenness to describe it.  

This was just the really obvious example; there are other, similarly altered states we could discuss.  Proper exercise will induce euphoria, for example.  I’m not talking about doing something cruel to your body that kills brain cells and makes you see pretty colors.  I’m talking about inducing, and then pushing through, cardio-respiratory distress.  The result is neuro-immuno-endocrine adaptation; your whole internal physiology reorganizes to meet the increased demands of the exercise.  It’s a complete overhaul — neuromuscular coordination, lactic acid transport, oxygen uptake, the works — very, very healthy for you.  And oooooooooh my, does it feel gooooood.

Singing triumphant, God-glorifying psalms for a good stretch will induce a similar state of euphoria; physiologically, it has to do with the way singing regulates your breathing, and music enhances the effect upon your emotions.  Even an extended responsive reading, carried out vigorously in a group, can do it.  It’s not uncommon for a person in that state to be so overcome that he’s temporarily unable to speak or sing.

Now all these — sexual communion between husband and wife, proper exercise, psalm-singing, and public reading and recitation of Scripture — are things we must do, even if they do feel really good.  If it turned out that all of these things involved mild pain, say, like getting a papercut, then we would preach the joys of serving God in spite of how it may feel at the moment.  We’d quote Paul saying, “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us.”  And so on.  In short, we’d be all gung-ho about it.

Well, it turns out that these things are pleasurable instead of painful.  And something about that makes them hard to accept.  It’s hard to get a good self-righteous buzz going when you’re doing something fun.  It’s incredibly revealing — of uour character, of our view of God — that we have such trouble with pleasure.  

But we still need to just obey.  So may I suggest that at the very minimum, we should obey God in spite of how it might feel?  If it turns out that obeying God engenders a hit of endorphins, we’re just going to have to grit our teeth and trust Him to get us through it, in spite of the pleasure.  It’s a tough job, but Christian living can’t always be a bed of thorns.

Of course, we should go much further than that — we should thank God for His good gifts, and enjoy what He has given us, as we are commanded to do.

The squinty-eyed fellow thinks for a moment.  “But the Bible says that if we follow Christ, we’ll have tribulation.”

“So we will,” I tell him, “but does it ever say that it will be tribulation every moment?”

He is silent.  I continue: “Doesn’t it also say that God gives us all things richly to enjoy?  Doesn’t it also say, for example, that the heavens declare the glory of God?  Shouldn’t I enjoy the sunset?”

“Sure you should,” he says.  “But God’s doing that.  When you’re exercising so that you’ll get high, that seems a little different.  It sounds addictive.”

“‘Exercising to get high’ is not quite what I said, but maybe we can come back to that later.  Let’s talk about ‘addictive.’  What does that mean, exactly?” I ask.

“Well, you know,” he says.  “You do something, and you like it, so you get to doing it more, and you like it more, and pretty soon it’s all you can think about.”

“So your solution is to not do anything you like?”  I ask.  “Sounds a little drastic to me.”

“It works,” he says primly.  “I’m not addicted to anything, either.”

“That’s arguable,” I say.  “Paul has some pretty spiky comments about neglect of the body not having any spiritual benefit.  But let’s explore this addiction thing further, because I think you have a valid concern.  It is certainly possible to abuse the pleasures God gives.”

He nods.  “Exactly.”

“So let’s talk about alcohol,” I say.  “It seems like the ideal test case — it’s discussed quite a bit in the Bible, it can be physically addictive, and a person could avoid it altogether and live a perfectly healthy life, so it’s totally optional on that level.”

By this time, he’s a little suspicious.  “Okay…” he says doubtfully.

to be continued…

*See the disclaimer in Part 1.

**Real beauty begins internally, and the Bible has a lot to say about that.  It goes way beyond “having a great personality” — true beauty is both true beauty and true beauty; there is a physical outworking of the internal condition.  But here, Solomon is not talking about internal beauty, and in fact there are no exception clauses for internal ugliness.  He must still be absolutely besotted with her body, no matter what the state of her internal beauty.


Altered States of Consciousness, Part 1: Definition?

1 February 2009

Conservative Christians hate altered states of consciousness.

Altered states lead to demon influence, demon possession, bad dreams, narcolepsy  and the ownership of Cabbage Patch Kids.  Or is it the other way around?  Anyway, they’re bad for you.  So says the squinty-eyed fellow at the Living Way Christian Discernment Ministry*, which also publishes pamphlets warning of the occult dangers of pyramids, rainbows, and Procter & Gamble.

Before we get too deeply into this, though, we probably ought to define the term.  What is an altered state of consciousness?  Altered from what?

Here enters the first problem: “altered state of consciousness” is an unbelievably sloppy term.  It implies that there’s a baseline state of consciousness, and this other state is ‘altered’ from the normal one.  In reality, though, the state of a given person’s consciousness is in constant flux.  Let’s think this through a little.

6:30 a.m. The alarm woke Jack up.  He fumbled for the clock, slapped the button, and squinted at the glowing red numbers.  Six-thirty already?  He heaved himself out of bed, stumbled into the bathroom, ricocheting off the doorjamb on the way in. He went through the motions almost automatically, still barely awake until he washed his hands.  The shock of the cold water jarred him; he pulled his hands back and waited for it to warm up.

6:33 a.m. Still blinking sleep from his eyes, he headed for the kitchen and got the coffeemaker started.

6:37 a.m. He returned to the bathroom to shower.  By the time he’d returned to the bedroom to dress, his wife, Mary, was awake.

“G’morning, honey.”

“Morning, love,” he replied.  She headed for the door, and as he began to dress, he could hear the shower running.

6:55 a.m. Back to the kitchen to grab his lunch from the refrigerator, pour the coffee into a thermos cup that would fit in his car’s cupholder, a quick kiss for Mary, and out the door.

7:42 a.m. Walking into work, Jack fell in step with Kowalski, a friend from Marketing.

“Ready for your pitch to the V.P.?” Kowalski asked.

“That’s not until Thursday.” Jack said.

“It is Thursday.” Kowalski told him.

Jack’s stomach turned to ice.  “I’ve gotta go,” he said, and raced toward his office.

7:44 a.m. As he entered the office, the phone was ringing.  It was Kowalski.

“Hey, I was wrong — it’s only Wednesday.  Sorry about that.”

Jake’s face reddened.  “You jerk–“

“Hey, it was an accident.  I know how important this is to you.  I’m sorry.”  Kowalski sounded a little wounded.

“Ah, forget it,” Jake said.  “I’m just glad you were wrong.”

They hung up, and Jake dropped into his chair, his gut slowly unclenching.  The aftereffects of the adrenaline left him jittery until lunchtime.

12:30 p.m. Jake wasn’t particularly hungry.  He didn’t even unpack his lunch all the way; just took one sandwich off the top and ate it.  His stomach was still feeling a little iffy.

2:43 p.m. Jake began to feel sleepy.   He took an unnecessary trip to the copier just to move around a little and try to shake it off.  That didn’t work very well, so he stepped into the stairwell and did a dozen squats.  Feeling a little better, he returned to his desk.

3:35 p.m. The sleepy feeling began to return.  Jake decided he’d better eat something.  He retrieved his lunch from the refrigerator in the break room and sat down at the table to eat a little more.  In the bottom of the sack, he noticed a small envelope.  Curious, he retrieved it.   It was a very sensuously worded note from Mary, ending with the words “I can’t wait until you get home tonight.”  He sat at the table for a little longer until his reaction subsided, then returned to his desk, rather less sleepy than before.

5:00 p.m. Jake left work.  Traffic was heavy on the way home, and he found himself clenching the steering wheel, willing people out of his way.

5:46 p.m. Jake opened the front door and the smell of roast duck flooded his senses.  As he rounded the corner to the dining room, he saw the table set in white linen, glittering silver and fine china.  The wine was already poured; everything was ready.

Mary’s older sister Helen came out of the kitchen with a steaming platter.  “Hi, Jake.  She’s upstairs getting dressed; everything else is ready.  Take this for me?”

Jake took the platter and set it on the table as Helen returned to the kitchen and brought out two more dishes.

“Thank you, Helen,” Mary said from the doorway behind them.  Jake turned and his breath caught.  She was wearing that blue chiffon dress she’d worn that time…

Helen smiled.  “Well, my work here is done.  You kids have fun.”  She picked up her purse from beside the door and let herself out.

Jake grinned.  It was going to be a very good evening.

Given the contents of Mary’s note, it would be a little indelicate for us to continue looking in on the rest of Jake’s day.  Let’s just say that Jake and Mary had a mutually blessed evening together, and leave it at that.

Now, how many times did the state of Jake’s consciousness alter, even in this very truncated account of one day?  How many different states of consciousness did he experience?  Barely awake, alert, frightened, angry, jittery, sleepy, aroused, impatient, and so on.  How many things conspired to alter the state of his consciousness?  Cold water, caffeine, fear, anger, adrenaline, food, low blood sugar, exercise, an arousing note, impatience with the traffic, the scent of roast duck, the sight of Mary in that dress…quite a range, isn’t it?

The squinty-eyed fellow at the Living Way Christian Discernment Ministry* isn’t buying it. “That’s not what I’m talking about,” he says.   “All those are part of normal life.  I’m talking about dabbling in ecstatic states — drugs and alcohol, breathing exercises, chanting, so-called ‘relaxation techniques,’ guided meditation, all of that.”

“Ah, so it’s not just any alteration of state.  What you’re really trying to say is that ecstatic states are bad?” I ask him.

“Exactly,” he says, thinking that I’m finally getting it.

I’m still confused.  “Let’s go back to Jake and Mary…without describing the rest of their evening, let’s just say that at a certain point in the proceedings, they propelled each other into a state of ecstasy.  You’re telling me that’s bad?”

“No, no.  It’s not the same thing at all,”  he says.

I ask him for the difference, and he sputters.  Apparently getting a definition of “altered state of consciousness” is going to be a little harder than most people think.  I can’t help wondering if there’s a more biblical way to approach the subject…

*Please note that this is a composite of a number of organizations I’ve encountered and conversations I’ve had over the course of the last thirty years or so.  As far as I know, there is no organization called “Living Way Christian Discernment Ministry,” and I am not taking a shot at any single person or organization, but rather at a set of broad trends and currents of thought.

That said, if the shoe fits, well…in the words of the old Quaker storekeeper who surprised a burglar in the middle of the night, “Friend, I would do thee no harm, but thou standest where I am about to shoot.”